Monday, May 28, 2007

The New York Times
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May 27, 2007

The ‘Prada’ Defense That Didn’t Fly

IT’S a long way from Emily Brontë to Lauren Weisberger, and even further, perhaps, to Peter Braunstein, the former media columnist for Women’s Wear Daily. Or is it?

Something strange happened in court during the Braunstein “fire fiend” trial. That was the moment when Anna Wintour’s name came up as someone Mr. Braunstein had fantasized about killing. It began to dawn on everyone, from spectators and reporters to, perhaps, the prosecution, that they were about to witness the first use in a high-profile criminal case of the “Devil Wears Prada” defense.

Plot twists lurking below the surface in the Braunstein story suddenly emerged full blown, propelled by the fevered writings in Mr. Braunstein’s diary and manifesto. In a written evaluation, the defense psychologist, Barbara R. Kirwin, stated that for Mr. Braunstein, the sexually charged, celebrity-driven pressure cooker of the fashion world was toxic, “the proverbial recipe for disaster.”

Was it true? Is fashion so catty, judgmental, obsessed with appearance and attitude that it can drive someone insane? Is it so poisonous that it can lead a person to commit several felonies? While the “fashion made him do it” defense ultimately failed — the jury resoundingly convicted Mr. Braunstein last week of kidnapping and sex abuse, and he faces 25 years to life in prison — some elements of his lawyers’ claims do resonate.

There is no doubt, several fashion insiders and former insiders say, that working in the industry can be brutal. “Fashion is what fashion is,” said Fraser Conlon, a former publicist for Tom Ford and Donna Karan, who now runs Amaridian, a gallery of sub-Saharan art in SoHo. “If you’re not grounded and don’t have a strong sense of yourself, sure, that could affect you.”

Still, he added, survival is part of the game and depends, to some degree, on the passion someone has for the field. “I think that people who stay in fashion and love fashion, believe in fashion on a certain level,” Mr. Conlon said. “There is a certain element about fashion that does require endurance, the component of it that changes all the time. And I think that those that can tolerate it will have a sort of constitution to survive it.”

Mr. Braunstein, now 43, was fired from Women’s Wear Daily in 2002 for, essentially, being obnoxious to the wrong person. Before then, he had been a lowly freelancer and graduate student in pop culture; working in the newsroom of Fairchild Publications, the oracle of the fashion industry, was his dream job. He had access to celebrities, he could make magazine editors quiver through “Memo Pad,” WWD’s answer to Page Six, public relations as gossip.

But he was also a seemingly willful misfit, according to former colleagues, someone with bad clothes, bad hair and tone-deaf social etiquette, on the order of Heathcliff, Ugly Betty and, yes, Andrea Sachs, the Wintour character’s clueless assistant in “Devil,” in a world that prized all the opposite qualities.

It was not so different, perhaps, from high school, and in the end, after his dismissal, he became a monster, Stephen King’s Carrie, humiliated at the prom.

“There was no place in the world for him,” Ms. Kirwin, the author of “The Mad, the Bad and the Innocent: The Criminal Mind on Trial,” told the jury. “Everybody was a hypocrite.”

After Mr. Braunstein was fired, the psychologist said, his latent paranoid schizophrenia emerged, and he plunged off the deep end. On Halloween 2005, he impersonated a firefighter and tricked his way into the Chelsea apartment of a co-worker he barely knew, where he sexually molested and terrorized her for 13 hours.

Mr. Braunstein put Manolo Blahnik sandals on his victim, which some commentators have described as fetish-like behavior. It was not a fetish, his lawyers say — the shoes became “props” in his crusade to destroy fashion icons.

Mr. Conlon wondered why Mr. Braunstein would have been attracted to an industry that was so toxic for him, an industry dominated by strong women, which was certainly no place for a misogynistic male.

Still, he said: “I would be hard pushed to be convinced that it was the industry that drove him to do what he did. You are or you aren’t that person. I would believe some far more deeply rooted psychological trauma would make him do something like that.”

The movie version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the best-selling novel by Ms. Weisberger, a former assistant to Ms. Wintour, came out in 2006, while Mr. Braunstein was awaiting trial. “When I saw the movie, I said that’s the Peter Braunstein story,” Robert Gottlieb, Mr. Braunstein’s defense lawyer, recalled the day after the guilty verdict. “You have a chip on your shoulder, you think people are inferior to you, and then you go into the fashion industry, where you could be inferior,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “They are flying high. You feel like a schlump. It’s not the best environment to handle your psychosis.”

In his diary, Mr. Braunstein obsessively vented his rage at, among other targets, Kerry Diamond, then the beauty director of Harper’s Bazaar.

“I can’t help remembering the week I lost my job at Fairchild, and I called Kerry Diamond – who sang my praises up till then, so I thought she’d see a friend in need,” he wrote, on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2005, while running from police. “Maybe. She called me back and berated me for leaving too long a message on her cellphone. ‘That costs money, you know?’ ”

He went on: “If there was ever a contingent of hubris-drenched compensated sociopaths crying out for retribution, it’s this crowd. And every time I think about their callous indifference along every step of my downturn, it just strengthens my resolve to see this through until I’m a bleeding corpse splayed out on the sidewalk filled with police-issue lead.”

On Dec. 7, still on the run and surviving by visiting churches and soup kitchens, he wrote that he had become part of a netherworld whose members “lack the essential props that would fool others into thinking they’re still a part of the society: a cellphone and a Starbucks cup with that paper/Styrofoam band around it to ‘protect’ the cup-holders. (God Help Us!)”

But he saved his fiercest wrath for Ms. Wintour. Why? Because, he claims, she did not return his phone calls when he was a media columnist. With the benefit of hindsight, you can sort of understand why.

“When I was a media reporter, there were many high-profile editors, and God knows they had big egos, but you could still get them on the phone — Remnick, Carter, Fuller, even Martha Stewart,” Mr. Braunstein wrote in his “personal manifesto, a k a the making of a menace.” “But Wintour? She just never talked to peons like us.”

It is hard to believe that fashion alone could be responsible for such wrath, said Christian Francis Roth, a fashion designer: “I don’t think it’s any more despicable than any other business. Certainly not any more despicable than entertainment or finance. If the business made him do it, there’d be a lot more people lighting fires.”

Ms. Diamond, now the vice president for communications at Lancôme, was out of the office Friday, and her assistant declined comment. Ms. Wintour’s office was closed for the holiday weekend, and she did not return a message left at her home.

In his manifesto, Mr. Braunstein exhibited a grandiose need to justify himself by tearing down those who, unlike he, had survived the steely, exacting mistress that is the fashion world.

“O.K., you get to call me a psycho,” he wrote, “and in return, I get to tell you, irrefutably, that I’m someone who saw through and willfully renounced the inane regimen of petty satisfactions and petty grievances that you all live every day.”

Who in the fashion world would not recognize that sense of self-importance?

If the Prada fits, wear it.